Monday, 25 April 2016

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Straight Outta Compton Verney

Look at them paws! View courtesy Capability Brown
If you've never been to Compton Verney, the art museum housed in a Georgian mansion near Stratford on Avon, then you should go. It is the kind of place that haunts you, a grand old house on a human scale, with beautiful grounds and a fascinating art collection. I came away with the feeling that I'd spent most of the day wandering the interior of a (mostly) benevolent dream.

The first house on the site was built in the 15th century by Richard Verney, a knight. Various extensions and alterations followed, culminating in a major redesign in the modish Classical style, circa 1715, making the present house a contemporary of Blenheim Palace down the road - but much easier to take in if your home is a terraced house in Bristol! Stunning it may be, but it's the kind of place you can imagine being inhabited by actual people rather than giants.

This being said, there must have been some serious money around in the later 18th century, when two of the period's biggest names, Robert Adam and Capability Brown, were hired to remodel the house and lay out the grounds. The effect of the landscaping in particular is theatrical, in that you walk up one side of a long, narrow pond, glimpsing the house only occasionally through the trees, then cross the pond on a bridge that offers the first proper view. By the time you actually reach the building you've seen it in glimpses, at a distance and up close, all from different angles.

Lucus Cranach the Elder, Venus and Cupid, c1525 (photo copyright Compton Verney)
Having driven all the way across the open expanse of the Cotswolds I found the interior slightly bewildering and immensely stimulating - a warren of staircases, corridors and rooms - though this was I think exacerbated by the staging of the current Shakespeare exhibition with its uneven wooden flooring and paintings lit in unusual ways and surrounded by deep shadows. These rooms were all enclosed, but then came another with wide windows looking out over the parkland. The contrast between dark and light, enclosure and space was startling.

Pierre-Jacques Volaire, Vesuvius Erupting at Night, C18 (photo copyright Compton Verney)
Like many country houses, Compton Verney enjoyed prosperity until the latter part of the 19th century, when an agricultural recession (a product of globalisation and cheap imports - plus ca change) cut estate revenues. In the early 20th century, then, increasingly heavy death duties added a crushing burden. The house was sold out of the family, and eventually requisitioned by the military during World War II, before being more or less abandoned for almost fifty years. It was the enterprising former Littlewoods chairman Peter Moores who began restoration work at Compton Verney in 1993, and in 1998 it opened as an art museum.

Queen Elizabeth I, British School, c1590 (photo copyright Compton Verney)
The unusual collection is worth seeing irrespective of the exhibition schedule, with an array of paintings from Naples 1600-1800, then late medieval art - notably paintings by Cranach - from northern Europe, and a fairly small but marvellous group of British portraits. These are on the ground floor, then come the exhibition spaces and rooms showing a world class collection of ancient Chinese artefacts, and then a mezzanine and attic that house Compton Verney's folk art collection.

Folk art!
This, the largest collection of its kind in Britain, is as mixed a bag as you'd imagine, given the limitless nature of 'folk art'. There are painted signs and carved symbols for shops and businesses, hunting decoys, bird scarers in the form of toy soldiers with spinning arms, hand-made chairs, and numerous amateur or naive paintings of boxers, shops, dentists at work, etc, etc, etc. Personally, I love the curiosities best - the oversized top hat that must have advertised a shop, a giant padlock, a carved weathervane in the shape of a hand.

Village Fete, British School, c1790 (photo copyright Compton Verney)

Girl with Cherries, British School, c1820 (photo Compton Verney)
Such things were admired and collected by Ravilious, Bawden, Angus et al, and the connection between folk art and professional 20th century artists and designers is made explicit in the Marx-Lambert Collection, which occupies one end of the attic. Alongside examples of Enid Marx's design work are ceramics and other folk art objects collected by Marx and her friend Margaret Lambert, with whom she wrote 'English Popular Art'. First published soon after the war, it is in print today, while the subject of folk art continues to inspire contemporary artists like Jeremy Deller.

Alarming carved wooden pig's head
Pop Art?

You could argue, I suppose, that folk art itself was a phenomenon that evolved out of the tastes and collecting habits of 20th century artists and designers. Like Picasso or Klee, or any number of European artists, they were looking outside the mainstream for inspiration, delighting in strange objects and naive paintings as things of originality in an increasingly uniform world. This is certainly the case with Ravilious in his book 'High Street', which is a compendium of oddities, and it's interesting then to look at the visual echoes of folk art that you see in pop art. I can imagine that Joe Tilson, for one, would have enjoyed carving some of those lovely old shop symbols...

Find out more about Compton Verney here.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

'Sir Gawain & The Green Knight' in Pictures

Christmas at Camelot, screenprint by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Penfold Press 2015
I'm eagerly awaiting the second print in Clive Hicks-Jenkins's series of fourteen devoted to the adventures of Sir Gawain and his nemesis, the Green Knight. I've seen various preparatory drawings and proofs, and the finished print of 'The Green Knight Arrives' promises to be stunning. Watch this space.

The story has inspired numerous illustrators over the centuries, from the anonymous artist whose work adorns the original manuscript to Diana Sudyka, whose illustrations accompany Simon Armitage's translation of the text in a 2008 Folio Society edition.

Illustration of Green Knight's arrival by Anning Bell, 1913
The big difference between most of the pictures shown here and Clive's project is that these are book illustrations, whereas Clive is producing a series of free-standing prints inspired by, but not directly connected to the text. Not that there is anything wrong with the book illustrations, some of which are dazzling.

Green Knight's arrival, by Juan Wijngaard, 1981
The very first (extant) edition of the poem, which is held in manuscript form in the British Library, was illustrated by an unknown artist in the 14th century. The grisly scene of the Green Knight speaking via his decapitated head is particularly striking - note the expressions of (medieval) bewilderment on the faces of Arthur and his retinue - OMG! #headisoff!

Green Knight continues speaking, despite losing head, Illustration from original manuscript, C14

The same scene illustrated by Diana Sudyka for the Folio Society, 2008

Gawain approaches Sir Bertilak's castle, Cyril Satorsky, Ltd Editions Club, 1971

Watch out Gawain! Sir Bertilak's wife, by Diana Sudyka

Gawain at the Green Chapel, Lego-style, by Josh Wedin 2007

Yikes! The Green Knight by Des Hanley, 2000s

The moment of truth for Gawain, Dorothea Braby, Golden Cockerel Press 1952

There's a whole world of other Gawain-related imagery out there - if anyone wants to share any please comment below. I'll post an image of Clive's new piece as soon as it's published. Meanwhile, for an interesting take on Gawain style, check this out.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Eric Ravilious and a Boat Race Landmark

Eric Ravilious, River Thames at Hammersmith, 1933 (Towner)

Although he was born in London and lived there on and off through his twenties, Ravilious painted few watercolours of the capital. Fans of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race may recognise the scene, however, as the island lies about halfway along the course, just around the Surrey Bend from Hammersmith Bridge. We are looking from Chiswick Mall over the western end of Chiswick Eyot towards the low-lying land of Barnes.

By 1933, Ravilious and Tirzah were dividing their time between Great Bardfield in Essex, where they shared a house with Edward and Charlotte Bawden, and a flat on Weltje Road, Hammersmith, which overlooked the river a short way downstream of this vantage point. Here the couple held Boat Race parties every spring, particularly enjoying the moment of drama when the thin, pointed prows of the boats first appeared out from under Hammersmith Bridge, with the spreading swarm of little steamers and motor-boats following behind. In 1938 Ravilious designed for Wedgwood a magnificent Boat Race bowl.

Further upstream, Tirzah later recalled, ‘was a barge made into a boat house... and even further along was our landlady Mrs Austin and then Mr Nigel Playfair’s house with its large semi-circle of window... opposite these houses was a little island called the ‘Ey’ or Ait’ which you could visit at low tide’

It was perhaps from the landlady’s window that Ravilious painted a scene that is full of interest. In the foreground a workman gazes upriver, ignoring for the moment the piles of bricks and sand that he is about to build into the slipway one can see today. Beyond him lies the island, one of those low, cigar-shaped accumulations of mud that belong uniquely to the tidal Thames. From it protrude curious tufts of vegetation. They could be rushes, except that the plants on the far left, which are uncut, seem more substantial. Something is certainly being cultivated here, but what?

The Eyot floods at high tide with brackish water, making it useless for most crops but ideal for growing willows such as the shrubby, multi-stemmed osier (Salix viminalis). This fast-growing plant was once vital to fruit growers and market gardeners, who relied on its stems, known as withies, for basket-making. In earlier centuries Chiswick was renowned for its market gardens and, from around 1800, the Eyot was used to cultivate osiers, a practice that continued until the last grower went out of business two years after this painting was made.

Osiers still grow on the island, now a nature reserve. Nearby another longstanding local industry remains very much in business – an industry in which the artist had a considerable interest. Fuller’s Griffin Brewery occupies the same extensive site just behind the artist’s vantage point on Chiswick Mall, as it did in 1933 and has indeed since 1845. Perhaps, as he worked, Ravilious smelled the fragrant hops and looked forward to a pint of London Pride.

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', published by The Mainstone Press.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Hooray for Giorgione the Unknowable

Giorgione, The Tempest, c1506-8
Historians explain the past in terms of cause and effect, art historians in terms of innovation and influence. Work your way through one of the enormous books on the subject (billed as the definitive guide or THE story) and you come out the other end with the feeling that human culture is a sort of long distance railway journey from a remote and primitive region to the bustling metropolis. One thing follows logically on from the next: Giotto... Titian... Rembrandt... Manet... Warhol... It makes sense. It's reassuring, in the same way that knowing the English kings is reassuring.

But of course there are other ways of looking at this. When Peggy Angus visited Soviet Russia in the early 1930s she was struck by the way artworks were arranged at the Hermitage, not by movement but by patron. The artistic identity of different ages was moulded not by the artists but by the people and organisations who paid them - the Christian church in 15th century Italy, or the wealthy burghers of Vermeer's Holland, or the rich men who paid Thomas Gainsborough to paint their women.

This is a bit reductive, but it does make you think. Why, I sometimes wonder, is there such an obsession with progress in art? At any one time the vast majority of artists (and their patrons) are conservative. Techniques evolve, but the wealthy still like to have their portraits painted and London galleries are filled with attractive pictures of landscapes and picturesque places. Meanwhile, the unique expression embodied in a really good painting is likely to be missed, as we pin it to our art history map.

Titian, Pastoral Concert, c1509
Rather than exemplifying the fashion of their age, exceptional artists tend to transcend it. Frank Auerbach made the point in an interview last year that Giotto and Cezanne have more in common than Cezanne and Pissarro, because the former both painted pictures that 'work'. In the same way it makes more sense to think of Manet in relation to Goya than as an Impressionist. Better still, look at Manet next to Giorgione.

In strict art historical terms the relationship between these two wonderful artists is debatable. When
he first decided to paint a naked woman, Manet did go off to consult Giorgione, but the painting he studied - 'Pastoral Concert' - has since been attributed to Titian. So he may have tried to be influenced by Giorgione but wasn't, except sort of second-hand, via Titian. 

But I think there's a more important connection between these two painters, though divided by the centuries: they both painted pictures that resist being pinned down. In Manet's case I'm talking particularly about 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergere', which I never tire of visiting at the Courtauld Gallery, and in Giorgione's 'The Tempest', aka 'The Soldier and the Gipsy', which I was hoping would be featured in the current RA show, but isn't.

Manet, Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, c1862
I don't know what either artist intended, but both works play with our ideas of art history. In Manet's case, the painting seems at first sight to be pretty straightforward. The young barmaid belongs to the 19th century tradition of French realist painting. She's from a humble background and so anonymous that she's not even mentioned in the title of the painting, which is more conventional than, say, 'Dejeuner sur L'Herbe'. At first sight, that is. Look more closely and we realise that there is a mirror behind her, and that her reflection is not where it ought to be, ie behind her, but off to the right. And then there is a sinister-looking cove in a hat who appears to be standing where we stand, in front of the picture.

It's hard not to feel that there's a story here, but what is it? Is the girl being propositioned? Is she suffering existential ennui? Or is the sinister cove a reference to mortality, Manet himself being close to death? The distorted reflection demands an explanation we can't give, while the young woman's expression is unreadable.

Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1874
In fact it's not unlike the expression of the young mother in 'The Tempest', a painting which must hold some sort of record for the number of different interpretations it has inspired. To the non-art historian this must seem puzzling. After all, there's nothing immediately odd about the painting. In fact the scene is rather ordinary. There are no mythical beings or monsters or people wandering around with severed heads, just a woman breastfeeding a baby while a man stands nearby. There's a town in the background, over which a storm is breaking, but not very dramatically.

So what makes art historians tear their hair out over this charming but innocuous little picture? The absence of a story. Convention tells us that Italian artists of Giorgione's time did not paint anonymous figures in fields - as 19th century French artists did. They painted scenes, mostly from the Bible and sometimes from Classical mythology. A man in a painting other than a portrait was a saint or a Greek god or a hero; a woman was Mary or Venus or a nymph. Yes, there were other, more obscure characters, and some fairly recondite Biblical scenes, but the idea of placing a random person in a landscape was unthinkable.

The business of interpreting this painting has kept generations of scholars busy. One version sees the baby as Dionysos, who is being cared for by his aunt Ino after Zeus killed his mother Semele with a thunderbolt, while Hermes stands by. There's one potential problem with this interpretation, since X-rays show that the male figure was painted over the figure of a second woman, but a classically educated person might well have seen lightning and thought, aha, Zeus. Others see a Christian story here, such as the rest on the flight into Egypt, although the late addition of the male figure is problematic again.

What I love about all this is the fact that so many people have spent so much time looking at this little painting. To my mind, the main reason for studying art history in the broad sense is to get more pleasure out of individual works of art. It's fun to pick out influences and guess at relationships, but in the end it's the looking that counts. And the pleasure of looking.

In the Age of Giorgione is at the RA until June.